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Augustana University College
A paper submitted to Dr. Jayne Gackenbach as part of the course requirements for Psy 473 (Sleep and Dreams), April, 1997
If you were to ask the average person on the street what they thought hypnosis was they would probably say something like, " it is a magical ability that some people have to make other people do what they want, even if it is against their will." Others might say that it can be explained by science without the issue of magic. In truth there is much debate about the definition of hypnosis, as with its effectiveness and usefulness in the area of psychology.
Wallace (1981) et al define hypnosis as:
Although this is only one definition all of them seem to have a common thread, the subjects are willing to follow the requests of the hypnotist.
The art of hypnotism started in Vienna with a man by the name of Franz Anton Mesmer. Mesmer lived from 1734-1815, and during this time he used hypnosis to cure anything from minor aches and pains to blindness. We get the term mesmerized from him, which describes the process he used to induce a trance over his subject. He would make a series of passes with his hands or a magnet over people. He said that he was working with a persons animal magnetism. Although he claimed to help many people he was eventually discredited by the medical community. One of those who discredited him eventually became interested in his work. James Braid, an English physician, said that these cures were not due to animal magnetism, but could be attributed to suggestion. He developed an eye fixation technique and eventually came up with the term hypnotism. Later on a man by the name of Emile Coue came upon the scene and developed the Laws of suggestion which he used as guide-lines for his studies. The most recent psychologist to have an impact in the field of hypnosis was the father of modern hypnosis, Milton Erickson. His non verbal and verbal pacing techniques are still used to this day.
To look at hypnosis and say that it is one certain thing is very difficult to do, because the very nature of hypnosis is still a matter of great debate. There are those who see hypnosis as a state, or "state theorists", and those who don't believe it is a state, or "non state theorists". The main argument of the state theorist is that there is something different about the mental state of one who has been hypnotized. This is not easy to prove, and so there are not many state theorists. On the other hand there are the non state theorists who believe that there is nothing different or more correct about being hypnotized. Although both sides can clearly say what they believe hypnosis is not, they cannot agree on what it is.
The most popular view of hypnosis is that it is a form of sleep. This is because the person who is hypnotized, looks like someone who is either asleep, or falling asleep, or because of the ease at which a person falls asleep when suggested by the hypnotist, and also because some of the drugs that induce sleep can also produce the characteristics of a hypnotic trance. But this was disproved by M.J. Bass, who did a number of experiments on heart rate, EEG patterns, and respiration, and found that sleep has nothing to do with the hypnotic state, it is a completely separate state of being. If anything this trance state can be compared to that of daydreaming or the very initial stages of sleep. In these stages your awareness is shifted, you are in a very relaxed state and you are also highly suggestible. In a hypothetical situation if we were to look at a time line of EEG patterns we would see at the one end the delta and theta waves of a person who is in deep sleep. If we were to move up the line a little way we could see the brain waves of some one who is meditating, and if we went farther up we could eventually see the brain waves of someone who had been hypnotized. What this shows us is that sleep and hypnosis cannot occur at the same time so therefore, hypnosis is not sleep. The most simple and accepted description of hypnosis that can be given is that it is an altered state of conscious. According to Erika Fromm (1979) "An altered state of consciousness is a cognitive state different from the waking state." (p83)
To reach the state of hypnosis there are a few different methods. One popular method is that of induction. This is basically a series of suggestions from the hypnotist to the party being hypnotized. Usually this consists of immobilization, which involves having the subject sit quietly in a comfortable chair, and often to fixate their eyes. From there the hypnotist uses monotony, or the simple repetition of his voice to put the patient into a kind of partial sleep. While the patient is experiencing this partial sleep, they start to regress, and are shut off from the outside world, except for the voice of the hypnotist. Through this continuous entering of the hypnotists voice it invades the patients thoughts. Eventually the patient becomes confused and begins to think that the hypnotists voice is his own thoughts. This confusion is what causes the patient to become highly suggestible. What we see overall is that the patients awareness is lowered as well, their sensory output is suppressed. Gill and Brenman (1959) describe what the hypnotist does, (1) he impoverishes the inflow of sensory stimuli to the subject by limiting the subjects bodily activity, (2) attempts to alter the quality of bodily awareness of the subject, (3) suggests a kind of dissociation, by focusing his attention on a movement itself, so that movements that normally take place voluntarily may take place involuntary, and, finally, (4) breaks into a normal adjustment of the subjects human relationships by taking over control of the subject through creating an atmosphere of quasi magic. This in turn leads into state of hypnosis. Although this is a very effective way to bring about hypnosis, in is not necessary to go through this particular induction process. Weitzenhoffer, Gough, and Landes (1959), discovered that they could produce the state of hypnosis by informing the people they were going to be hypnotized and using a separate form of induction involving an eye fixation technique. They also tried this technique with people who were not informed that they were going to be hypnotized and found that it did not work. So although this technique can be successful, hypnosis will only occur under certain conditions.
Although these techniques sound relatively easy to do, and that they could be used on anyone, this is not the case. Different people have a different susceptibility to being hypnotized. In a study done by Faw and Wilcox (1958) they used the Maudsley Personality Inventory, which would give measures of extroversion and neuroticism, and found that if people measured high on the neuroticism scale the more introverted types were more susceptible. On the other hand for those who scored lower on the neuroticism scale the more extroverted people were susceptible. They also found that people who were more well adjusted were more susceptible than those who were less well adjusted, and also that liars tended to be especially insusceptable. The reason for this could be that those who are guarded are less willing to enter into a close enough relationship to undergo hypnotism. Although this does offer tendencies it cannot be said to be the final authority on who is susceptible and who isn't. The truth is that there is no clear answer as to what susceptibility really is.
In the clinical world, although hypnosis may not be a patients first choice, it can be used to alleviate certain disorders such as phobias, obsessions and compulsions, as well as anxiety to name just a few. In the case of phobias the most common technique used is that of systematic desensitization. In this technique the therapist asks the patient to take their fear, we will say snakes for this example, and to rate experiences in order of least frightening to the most frightening. They are then instructed on how to do some relaxation techniques. The therapist then asks them to take part in the least frightening event on there list, this could be looking at the word snake. While they are looking at the word they are to use there relaxation techniques to calm themselves down. This is done until the word no longer poses a threat, from here they move up their list and continue with the relaxation exercises. Eventually they will eliminate their fear of snakes. Where does hypnosis come into this? Hypnosis is used to reduce general anxiety to enable the patient to relax, to bring the patient back to that time in their life when the phobia may have begun, as well as to help the patient produce vivid imagery to aid in the desensitization process. (Scott, 1970) These same three aspects are also used to help in obsessive compulsive disorders, which is characterized by a person being obsessed with certain thoughts or images, or feels a compulsion to do certain things. The hypnotic suggestion is used to explain to the patient that their anxiety is unjustified as well the hypnosis is used to relax the patient. This of course is simplified greatly, but it is the basic process. Hypnosis can also be used to help those who suffer from anxiety attacks. These are characterized by the inability to concentrate, difficulty in making decisions, extreme sensitivity, discouragement, sleep disturbances, excessive sweating, and sustained muscle tension. (Coleman, 1976) As we saw before in the obsessive compulsive disorder the hypnotic state is used to relax the person, as well the patient is usually taught how to do this themselves so they do not have to keep going back to the doctors office. As you can see hypnosis can be a very effective tool to help some one with their problems, although the best and fastest method seems to be a combination of hypnosis and some behaviour altering technique.
Although hypnosis is used mainly for therapeutic reasons this is not the only use it has. There is also stage hypnosis. Stage hypnosis has been used for many years now to entertain many people. This is where the stage performer invites people up from the audience, hypnotizes them and then has them perform some outrageous tricks. The methods which are used for choosing the people are based on the tests described before. First the hypnotist will ask for some volunteers out of the audience, the hypnotist will then introduce himself as a hypnotist, this gives the people the expectation that they are going to be hypnotized, which makes them more susceptible. Out of these volunteers he will weed out the ones who are highly suggestible by having them perform some susceptibility tests. These range from asking them to raise there arms to having them do an eye closure task. The ones who then comply with these requests, or suggestions, are kept on stage, the rest are asked to have a seat. The hypnotist now has his group.
From here the performer amazingly puts the volunteers into an apparent instant deep sleep, and commences with his suggestions to have them do outrageous things. Yes the performer does hypnotize the people but he of course adds a little bit to it for stage appeal. To begin with when the hypnotist moves down the line you may see him or his assistant put their hands on the face of the person being hypnotized and apply pressure. What they are actually doing is applying pressure to the baroreceptors at the carotid sinus, this in turn creates a low heart rate, which also causes low blood pressure, and eventually the volunteer will faint. Another of the tricks commonly used by the stage hypnotist is that of the human plank. This is were the performer "hypnotizes" the volunteer and then asks them to become as rigid as a board. Then they are instructed to lean back were the assistants will catch them and lay them down on the floor. The Hypnotist then brings out two chairs and the volunteer is lifted up and placed on the chairs, one being under his neck and the other being under his ankles. To the audience it appears that the hypnotist has done his job making this person as stiff as a board. Then to add to the trick the hypnotist will get one of his assistants to climb up on top of the volunteer and stand on his chest. It appears that the volunteer is as stiff as a board and has not even bowed at the weight of the assistant. The truth is you don't even have to be hypnotized to do this trick. If you were to take two chairs and place them just right under the neck and ankles of one of your friends they most likely would also be able to do this. As for the person standing on top, well if the person stands in the right spot on their chest they can hold this weight quite easily.
Although these are only tricks that anyone can do there are some aspects of the show that are quite amazing. Take that of hypnotic hallucination. The performer would place a suggestion to the volunteer that it is raining. The crowd would see that the person who is hypnotized is trying to hide and get out of the down pour. Another amazing example is that of a negative hallucination, this is where something is taken away. Commonly the hypnotist will give the suggestion to the volunteer, that when he lights his cigarette he will disappear. All that the volunteer sees is the cigarette floating in the air. Of course the crowd sees, the hypnotist holding the cigarette up. Although these are only a few of the things that can be done by a stage hypnotist the possibilities are as great as his imagination.
The area of hypnosis is one that still has great mystery attached to it. The lack of knowledge as to what it is as well as how it works can only harm the scientific community. After seeing the results in which it can produce one can only wonder as to why there is not more research done in this area. Be it for entertainment or for therapeutic reasons hypnosis is commonly overlooked making it one of our many untapped resources.
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Hilgard, E. (1965) Hypnotic Susceptibility. NewYork, New York: Harcourt, Brace& World, Inc.
Rossi, E. (1986) The Psychobiology of Mind-Body Healing. New York, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.
Naish, P. (1986) What is Hypnosis: Current Theories and Research . Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Open University Press.
Wallace, B. (1981) Applied Hypnosis: An Overview. Chicago, Illinois: Nelson-Hall.